As a man who always draws a crowd, Woods will step into surreal surroundings at the Memorial: no spectators, no cheers and no ‘You da man!’ And he’s OK with it … especially that last part
Woods arrived earlier this week at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, site of the Memorial Tournament, which he has won five times. This trip to Ohio is different. It’s an experience that Woods has not felt on Tour since his opening round as a professional, at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no spectators for a sixth consecutive week since the season restarted last month at Colonial. Yet, Woods understands that to some extent, he still will be putting his health at risk.
“That's the risk that I'm taking,” Woods said Tuesday. “That's the risk that all of us are now taking. I know the Tour has done a fantastic job of setting up the safety and trying to ensure that all of us are protected and are safe, but it is a risk that we are now undertaking when we walk on the property and are around individuals that you don't know where they've been or what they've been doing.”
Woods had been hesitant to return until the Tour’s health protocols had been sorted out. After five weeks and only a handful of positive cases from among thousands of tests before and during tournaments, he decided to return to a place where he was comfortable.
“I did consider playing, trying to figure out if I should play or not,” Woods said. “But I just felt it was better to stay at home and be safe. I'm used to playing with lots of people around me or having lots of people have a direct line to me, and that puts not only myself in danger but my friends and family. I’ve just been at home practicing and social distancing and being away from a lot of people.”
In talking with friends on Tour, Woods tried to prepare for the low-energy atmosphere of a tournament with no crowds and hinted that a quiet mindset also is part of his new normal.
Woods has watched golf on TV to see how it is being played now versus when he last played in front of fans. Joking that it’s been nearly three decades, since the early 1990s when he was in high school in Southern California, since he last competed in a tournament without spectators, he acknowledged that it will be a different experience to hit a shot and have no one yelling or screaming.
Woods has not competed in a PGA Tour event since he shot 76-77 on the weekend to fade to 68th, last place among those who made the cut, at the Genesis Invitational in mid-February. He teamed with former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning to defeat rival Phil Mickelson and NFL star Tom Brady on May 24 in The Match: Champions for Charity, a made-for-TV exhibition that raised $20 million for coronavirus relief. Woods, 44, remains tied with the late Sam Snead for the most victories all-time on the PGA Tour, at 82. Woods will be the defending champion at the rescheduled Masters on Nov. 12-15.
With officials at other PGA Tour events having announced Monday that their tournaments will be played without fans for the rest of the 2019-20 season, Woods knows that this is golf during the pandemic.
“So, to see J.T. [Justin Thomas] make that putt, he's screaming, but no one else is screaming,” Woods said of the 50-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole Sunday at the Workday Charity Open. “And then when Collin [Morikawa, the eventual winner] makes it, normally – he didn't have that much of a reaction, but the whole hillside on 18 would have been just erupted. I've been there when they're throwing drinks toward the greens and people screaming, high-fiving, people running around, running through bunkers. That's all gone. That's our new reality that we're facing.”
Woods will be paired with Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka on Thursday and Friday in one of the featured pairings (tee times).
The three-ball typically would be the must-see grouping, with a majority of the usual 40,000 fans trying to get a glimpse of Woods. On Thursday, that all-star pairing at 1:17 p.m. EDT off the No. 1 tee will attract only the three players, their caddies and a volunteer or two for the 18 holes.
TV will chronicle every shot, but it won’t be the same on either side of the camera. As Woods noted, this is the “new reality” and one with which players and golf fans might be living for many months to come as an unseen virus has turned the world upside down.
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